Actors Bicker as Writers, Producers Stall in Strike Talks

SAG, AFTRA Face Split in Their Own Contract Negotiations

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LOS ANGELES ( -- In Hollywood, keeping the unity in "union" is getting harder by the day.
'Don't confuse process with progress,' says Nick Counter, chief negotiator for Hollywood's producers.
'Don't confuse process with progress,' says Nick Counter, chief negotiator for Hollywood's producers.

As talks between screenwriters and producers remained deadlocked yesterday, a crucial, long-standing alliance between Hollywood's acting guilds -- the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists -- appeared to unravel. AFTRA is threatening to abandon SAG and go it alone in its upcoming contract negotiations, further weakening the writers' leverage.

Dour statement
The Writers Guild of America yesterday resumed talks with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, and, typical of previous encounters from the past few weeks, a dour statement dribbled out by day's end.

"Don't confuse process with progress," said Nick Counter, chief negotiator for the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the trade organization for producers.

Mr. Counter added that the writers' proposals would result in "astronomical" increases in costs, further restrict "our ability to promote and market TV series and films, and prohibit us from experimenting with programming and business models in new media."

While the writers' contract with producers ends on Oct. 31, many labor experts have predicted that the WGA might strategically work past its own deadlines and wait until the expiration of the actors' union contracts in June 2008 to strike -- a move to increase a strike's blow. The thinking goes that if it's difficult to make a film or TV show without writers, then it's impossible to do so without actors.

AFTRA's warning to SAG
But the benefits of awaiting a confluence of the two disciplines' interests look to be fast eroding. Just when the writers need the actors most, the actors are starting to behave like, well, actors. AFTRA issued a warning yesterday that it might abandon SAG next summer and negotiate alone.

What triggered the bad blood between actors unions is a lesson in organized-labor arcane. Despite 26 years of negotiating contracts together, SAG over the summer decided to institute "bloc voting." Essentially, all votes by SAG members on the negotiating committee would be counted as votes toward whatever the SAG majority decided.

Yet the rift is deeper than procedural squabbles. A week ago, SAG accused AFTRA of poaching its contracts on basic-cable shows, scoring its contracts with Hollywood producers by undercutting SAG's minimum pay rates by more than half; AFTRA then insinuated that SAG was trying to usurp the lesser union's autonomy.

"There is no other conclusion than that SAG has unfortunately terminated the joint bargaining agreement," AFTRA National President Roberta Reardon said in a statement yesterday. By way of an olive branch, she added: "The interests of performers must be the No. 1 priority of our unions, and the upcoming negotiations must be our main focus."

Hollywood's producers, no doubt, hope otherwise.
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